Gen. Rita Aragon is the fourth Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Nominated by Gov. Mary Fallin, the retired two-star general was sworn into office in 2011. In 1989, Aragon became the first female commander in the history of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, overseeing the 137th Services Squadron; in 2003, she became the first female in the history of United States Air National Guard to hold the rank of Brigadier General as the Commander and Assistant Adjutant General for the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
I joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 1979. At the time, I was a school teacher and couldn’t make ends’ meet. I had two daughters and their dad left us, so we had no additional income. At the time I enlisted, women made up just two percent of the military population. In the Air National Guard, everyone comes in enlisted, and you have to prove you’re going to be loyal to the organization. In 1981 I was made an officer. It took me four interviews before I got an officer slot. After working in an environment with children, I was in an all-adults arena, and it was good for me. It helped my self-esteem and taught me I could do anything I wanted to do, that I just needed to go at it at full speed.
(During wartime I) was a mortuary officer. I had the opportunity to serve at Dover, Del., when they brought bodies in during the Gulf War. I also got the opportunity to serve as a mortuary officer after the Murrah bombing, which was considered to be active duty. I also held other commands in logistics and support. I also served as a support group commander, all while still teaching and, eventually, serving as a principal for 10 years in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district. I was offered full-time active duty role in the Guard, and I knew it was the only way I would make colonel; never did I think I would eventually make general.
We have 350,000 veterans in Oklahoma. That’s about 10 percent of our population. Young veterans face many challenges, including mental health issues. Last year there were 480 suicides in Oklahoma, and of those, one-fourth were veterans. So we make up 10 percent of the population, but a quarter of all suicides. We work with veterans’ outreach groups like the VFW, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to step up and train people on what we can do to get veterans in to talk. They will listen to someone who has actually been there. They can talk them back down and get them help.